It’s Not Any of Your Business.

Via Lorin Arnold
on Mar 7, 2012
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Photo: Derrick Tyson

Illness, Injury, Privacy Management, and the Yoga Student.

As I write this post, I’m getting ready to go to a yoga class with an instructor I know, but whom I’ve not taken a class from before. And, I find myself feeling torn about whether or not to take him aside before class and mention the chronic illness(es) that I have, and how they impact my practice. I’m just not sure how I want to, or should, manage this situation, and I’m certain that I’m not the only person who faces this issue as a yoga student.

Many yoga classes begin with an instructor asking students, generally, if there are any body issues about which the instructor should be aware.

This moment is ripe with issues of the self and privacy management. But, I don’t think that we, as practitioners or teachers, generally unpack the dimensions present.

There are certainly good reasons for students to share information about body conditions with an instructor.

Such knowledge can help the instructor to be better able to provide variations on poses based on physical conditions. Additionally, verbal or physical adjustments may need to be altered to account for particular physical issues. Finally, it helps instructors to understand why a student is electing not to do certain poses, and clarifies the difference between a reasoned choice to not engage a pose and uncertainty about how to do so.

There are equally good reasons for students not to share.

Photo: ThePetiteOboist

A student may feel that, frankly, it is not the teacher’s business whether he/she has a physical condition. Yoga teachers are not doctors or therapists, and we have to recognize that. Students may also believe that they will be overheard in the classroom, and often there is not a more private moment or place to have the discussion. Finally, a student may feel that telling the instructor about the condition may make that student appear less capable or able, and potentially decrease the instructors willingness to push the student into more vigorous or deeper postures. And those are just the obvious or “logical” reasons to retain the information.

Communication privacy management theory (Petronio) suggests that we elect to withhold information primarily due to our understandings of ownership and risk.

We believe that information about the self belongs to us, and that we should control who that information is shared with, when, and how. The decisions we reach about when to engage in sharing are based, in large part, on the risks we perceive in sharing. Risks can be psychological (shame, sorrow), social (ostricization, unwanted attention), or relational (loss of a friendship, reduced power). Thus, there are many complex reasons behind why a student might not want to share physical information with a yoga teacher.

The selection to share, or not share, information about a physical condition in a yoga class can be impacted strongly by the culture of the yoga community, as well as larger cultural settings.

Photo: Dominique

A male student in a vinyasa class may feel it is more acceptable or less risky to indicate a sports-based injury than a genetic condition, because one might appear to culturally indicate strength, while the other may seem to indicate weakness. A female student in an ashtanga class may be more comfortable talking about an injury from a workplace incident than one sustained in yoga, because one might appear to be related to dedication, while the other may be seen as suggesting a lack of body mindfulness. In a culture that values ability and independence, it may be easier to speak about a slipped disc than fibromyalgia.

We have so much self wrapped up in our understandings of the physical body that a “simple” report of physical issues is never really simple.

Though both student and teacher may recognize the value of sharing such information, there is so much more that is concurrent with that exchange. As teachers and students, it is wise to consider how we ask for information, how we share (or don’t share) that information, and how we respond to disclosures about the body.

As for me, tonight, I took a pass on sharing. Maybe next time.


Editor: Tanya L. Markul

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About Lorin Arnold

I'm a university professor, not-that-kind-of-doctor, family and gender communication scholar, spouse, vegan (not a real fur), and mother of six.  I'm a little goofy and a little serious, organized and kind of a mess. In my "spare" time, I teach yin and vinyasa yoga and write The VeganAsana - a blog about yoga and green eating/cooking.  I consider the blog, and my work with elephant journal my little effort to ponder yoga and veganism, and how they intersect, in a way that helps me develop understandings of self, provides information for others, and allows me to rock my creative smarty pants.


8 Responses to “It’s Not Any of Your Business.”

  1. Megan says:

    As an instructor, I’ve tried many different ways to provide a comfortable atmosphere in which students can share this information. I provide waivers with a brief health history, I personally greet new students before class and quietly ask if there is anything they would like to share regarding injuries or issues & I usually begin class asking the group if there are any specific areas or poses they wish to avoid that day. I’d love to hear other ways or perspectives of approaching this delicate matter.

  2. ValCarruthers says:

    You're doing all the right stuff, Megan. And that's all you can do without treading on sensitive boundaries. Many students will be forthcoming, happily checking off the little boxes on their health history and even coming back with medical approvals from their health practitioners in some cases. Some students will open up right in front of the group about their recent accident or treatments while others are far more reticent. What they all want to feel in your class is a sense of safety. That you are there with them and for them. Once they feel secure in that, they often do confide in the instructor and their practice then truly blossoms.

  3. ValCarruthers says:

    THANK YOU for this, Lorin. There are so many elements at work here—some blatant, some extremely subtle, some completely obscured. These require the teacher's vigilance, compassion and fluidity. As when just as I'm about to instruct shoulderstand, someone who's been quietly enjoying the class to that point, will announce that they have just completed physical therapy for a whiplash injury. I must in a heartbeat be ready to offer a variation or, if the student is really hesitant, fearful or under "doctor's orders" to offer an alternate or let them know that it's okay to rest out in child's pose instead. Conversely, I'd had the joy of seeing students' faces deeply soften when I've instructed them to "allow" an injured area to release and they feel the nurturing comfort of self-permission.

    Even if some students come to class still protective of old injuries that have long ago healed but simply require developing flexibility or strength, I must non-judgmentally work with them from where they are.

    We can take dozens of trainings and have thousands of RYT hours but they don't mean diddley unless, as I commented to Megan above, we create a sense of safety for them to feel comfortable in our classes whether or not they choose to share their histories.

  4. Annie Ory says:

    Brilliant. I love posts like this, that cause me to stop and consider something I am doing with students. I love being invited to learn and to be present with them with compassion.

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Lorin, I loved this very much. Usually, if I feel it, at the beginning of class I'll start by asking if there is anything anyone would like me to know – injuries/requests/etc and if not, they are more than welcome to tell me after class or not at all. I want students to feel comfortable, safe, but also empowered to make the choices that are best for them and that goes for what amount of information they want to or are ready to share. Thank you for being here, Lorin. xoxo

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  6. Lorin says:

    I just saw this reply and it made my day. Thank you!

  7. […] It’s Not Any of Your Business. […]

  8. alexandraengland says:

    I'd like to add a reason: I'm afraid of people thinking I'm "showing off".

    I'm hypermobile, and it's not the unmitigated blessing people with tighter tendons often think it is – it leads to increased wear on my joints, it means I can injure myself before I get the pain feedback that tells other people their movement's gone far enough, and it means I often have more trouble with stability than other people, as even the tiny joints in my feet and ankles are hypermobile. If I tell my yoga teacher about this, I get more correction on alignment and more focus on strength and balance, which is great and exactly what I need, but if I were asked in front of a class there's no way I would say anything about it – it's like claiming perfectionism as your weakness in a job interview. It might be the truth, but it doesn't make you any friends.